April 2021

Phoenix is sometimes referred as the most ecologically unsustainable city in the world. A city of millions in the the middle of a desert, it says something about what human effort and ingenuity make possible but also perhaps about how long impossibility may require to manifest itself. Needless to say, the city depends entirely on getting water from where it is to where people want it to be. Bruce Berger’s“The Ancient Waterways of Phoenix, Arizona” traces the way that irrigation canals have shaped the city.

I remember reading about the Hohokam and the canals they dug to farm the area that is now Phoenix in fourth grade social studies, in a remarkably dreary book entitled— with an accuracy and a lack of imagination that would both prove characteristic— Arizona. This is precisely the kind of thing that young children should learn about, but which they are also very unlikely to have the necessary frame of reference to really appreciate; I, at least, had no sense of how large and complex the system was, and telling me that it was “the largest pre-Columbian irrigation system in the Western Hemisphere” would probably have done little to alter that fact. In any case, the Hohokam abandoned the system when (probably) the soil was exhausted; white settlers excavated and expanded it centuries later, in the last half of the 19th century, and Phoenix grew up almost as a kind of byproduct of the control of the water.

Archaeological studies…keep raising the percentage of the main canal routes that follow those dug by the Hohokam, a figure now approaching 70 percent. Modern Phoenix is made possible by the canals: they are drinking water, irrigation, life.

As Berger points out, it’s surprising, in a way, that the canals are still there, given that they no longer serve their original purpose; the “urbanization of an agricultural area with its irrigation system intact created a genuine novelty: a desert city of canals.” (One might think, in comparison, of the transformation of London’s River Fleet into a sewer, or the subjugation by concrete of the Los Angeles River). Of course, once they are there, and the city is dependent on them, their management becomes a major concern, and a source of controversy.

There’s a lot more in the essay, but I was struck by how familiar the narrative of the Phoenix canals is from other cities (for instance, the Chicago River). Over time, they’ve gone from the reason the city is there in the first place, to a public amenity (Berger’s descriptions of people waterskiing through the canals, or of winding laterals shaded by cottonwood trees, conjures an image of a much more livable city), to polluted sites of perceived danger, to, now, a potential amenity again, and even a source of urban identity. Berger quotes the mayor of Scottsdale saying: “I think the canal banks can be almost as great an attraction as the ocean in San Diego, even in August.”

That strikes me as…let’s say “optimistic.” A canal official later in the piece refers to “pressure to build things like the San Antonio River Walk,” which seems more attainable. (Though Berger does point out that there are 362 miles of canal bank, which is certainly vastly more than San Antonio’s River Walk, or Chicago’s). In any case, though, the canals are a great example of the way that urban space is continually contested by different visions and interests, and the way that the built environment functions as both the terrain and, to an extent, the limit of that contestation.

Speaking of messing with nature: “Inexplicably Surviving”, by Matthew Gavin Frank, is a description of a day at a fancy pigeon show outside of Cape Town. Frank focuses on the way that many of the breeds have been made helpless and human-dependent, for instance by shortening and blunting their beaks so that they cannot obtain food for themselves, and asks whether, and how, ideas of “perfection” may be linked with this dependence, or— less generously— with uselessness. I also saw questions about race and racism hovering, not far off, in the background, and wondered about who participates in these shows, and who does not.

The title of Alice Gregory’s“How Did a Self-Taught Linguist Come to Own an Indigenous Language?” is actually overselling a bit. What the linguist in question, Frank Siebert, owned, and what is therefore now owned by his heirs at the American Philosophical Society, is a collection of materials— field notes, records of traditional stories, and a complete Penobscot dictionary— that reflects his life-long study of the Penobscot language. Access to those materials is now up to the APS.

U.S. intellectual-property law, established as an economic incentive for inventors, privileges people who can write. In copying down the grammar, the stories, and the vocabulary of the Penobscot, Siebert made them his. In dying, he made them the American Philosophical Society’s.

The problem is that with no one alive who speaks Penobscot as their first or primary language, these materials are virtually the only tools available for those who want to learn it, or to help to revive its use. Gregory describes concerns among the tribe’s members, when the pandemic began, that a single woman who helped to compile the dictionary and collect the other material would die, and that any real chance of passing on the language would go with her; the problem with Siebert’s work is really the same one, which is that time and chance and, mainly, colonial violence have left all of the tribe’s linguistic eggs in too few baskets.

The recent announcement that Mills College in Oakland would cease to operate as a degree-granting institution is sad for a number of reasons, one of which is certainly that women’s colleges provide a space that is unique, and important; at their best they gesture toward a different model of education entirely. But one thing that is distinctive to Mills, in particular, is its long history as a center of experimental and avant-garde music. It’s not really clear yet how, or whether, that legacy will continue in some form, or what will happen to the many unique instruments and other materials that the College holds. The selections in “A Guide to the Extensive Musical Legacy of Mills College”, by Marc Masters, does a good job of suggesting the scope of Mills’s influence, if only in the range of variation of the featured pieces.

On a much lighter note:

One of the great things about humans is that they will sometimes spend a tremendous amount of time, effort, and intelligence to do something just to see if it will work, or for the fun of it. One of the best things about the internet is that you can find out about the results of their efforts. I have two examples of this for this month.

First, from this list of useful terminal commands, I learned that you can watch a complete version of Star Wars, animated in ASCII, in the Mac terminal. You just need to type

nc towel.blinkenlights.nl 23

and sit back. You can also watch it in Windows if you bring up a command prompt and enter:

telnet towel.blinkenlights.nl

(In that case, I think you’re actually connecting to the internet, which could make things more complicated; this article explains the process and has some troubleshooting tips).

Why is this here? I have no idea, but it’s pretty great.

Second, a guy named Linus Akesson thought that the sounds coming out of large church organs resembled those made by sound chips in 8-bit video game systems, and that the difference we perceive in their sound is in fact mainly due to the reverberation of the vast spaces in which they are played. So, he first made an instrument out of a Commodore 64, mapping the keyboard onto that of an accordion; then he patched in reverb unit, and voila. I don’t think it sounds quite the same as the pipe organ, but it’s definitely surprisingly similar. The difference the reverb makes is dramatic. It’s a reminder that the sound we hear is never the product of its source alone, but a kind of collaboration between that source and the environment in which we are hearing it (and the physiology of our ears, as well).

(Via Kottke)

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